Travel: Things can get hairy off-piste: In the high Himalayas above Kashmir, a mysterious trail of non-human footprints had been spotted by a daredevil Swiss heli-skier. Tim McGirk strapped on his skis and went off in search of the yeti

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The Independent Travel
I TOLD MY Tibetan cook that I was going to Kashmir to search by helicopter for a beast whose tracks - larger than a man's - had been spotted by a Swiss ski guide near the summit of a 13,500ft Himalayan peak. 'It's the yeti,' said Dolma matter-of-factly. Then she gave me a useful piece of advice. 'Yeti's very angry. If yeti starts chasing you, never run up the mountain - always go down,' Dolma said.

Why, I asked. My Tibetan cook replied with unfailing logic: 'Yeti has long, long hair and when he runs down, hair falls in his eyes and he cannot see where he is going.'

Whenever I told friends that I was off to look for weird animal tracks, they either laughed or offered strange bits of yeti-lore. In Nepal several years back, I learnt, a Japanese tourist tried to buy a yeti scalp that was among sacred objects in a remote Buddhist monastery. It is hard to say what one could do with a yeti scalp - use it as a tea cosy? - but anyway the abbot refused. That same night the red, shrivelled and hairy scalp was stolen, and the Japanese tourist was never seen again.

Someone else told me of a shepherd attacked one night by a creature larger than a bear. It burst into his hut and would have torn him apart if the dogs hadn't driven it off. This is supposed to have taken place in the same Kashmir range of the Himalayas where the ski guide found the mysterious tracks.

The only person who did not seem prepared to jump to the conclusion that the tracks belonged to the abominable snowman was the man who discovered them, Sylvain Saudan. 'I don't know what kind of animal they belong to, but I'd like to find out,' said Saudan, a skier and mountaineer. He had sent photographs of the tracks to the Natural History Museum in Paris and to another museum in Munich requesting identification. 'Both places said that although their studies were not conclusive, the tracks did not correspond to any known animal,' says Saudan, who also sent copies of the photos to the National Geographic Society in Washington and awaits its reply. 'Judging from the prints, the Paris experts think this animal weighed about 100lbs,' Saudan says.

A ROBUST, strong-jawed man in his fifties, Saudan is known in France and Switzerland as skieur de l'impossible for his daredevil exploits. He made his reputation skiing down near-vertical mountains in the Alps and Himalayas, where a fall meant instant death.

Now Saudan is running an outfit called Himalaya Heli-ski, which flies out of Kashmir. His clients are very, very rich Europeans and Americans; they own department stores, factories and banks. They are the kind of people who collect antique Ferraris or who can afford to bring their private ski instructor with them to Kashmir (a week's heli-skiing costs pounds 3,700). They are not your usual crack-brained abominable snowman hunters.

'I don't believe in yeti legends,' says Saudan carefully, 'but it's hard to think that in mountains as immense as the Himalayas there isn't something out there that we don't know about.'

On 3 May 1991 at 10am, Saudan spotted a new peak that looked ideal for skiing. It was high, more than 13,500ft, with a broad, sweeping descent. There was no wind, and in the shadows cast by the rocky summit, the snow was still feathery. The pilot, Gilles Verdan, eased down the helicopter on the mountain's broad shoulder, about 125 yards from the summit. Saudan, along with another guide, Daniel Semblanet, from Chamonix in France, and three other companions jumped out with their bundles of skis and poles. When the blizzard whipped up by the departing helicopter cleared, they had a fine view of the Himalayas. Then, not more than 30 yards from where the helicopter had left them, the skiers noticed the strange animal tracks.

'From a distance, I thought these are a man's tracks,' recalls Saudan. 'But there was no reason for a man to be up there - the nearest village was a three-day walk.' He added: 'This creature did not take the easy way up the mountain, otherwise we would have seen its tracks, all the way up. No, this creature seems to have climbed up the back side of the mountain - a 4,000ft wall of rock and ice. A bear couldn't have done it, and a man could only have done it if he had ropes and his name was Reinhold Messner.'

Baffled, Saudan and his companions followed the tracks upwards towards the crest of the mountain. 'When a man climbs in deep snow, he digs his toe in first, makes a little step. But whatever made these marks didn't climb like that. Its feet were flat against the snow,' says Saudan. 'I'm not a hunter, but to me, these tracks looked fairly fresh. In some of the tracks, you could see what looks like the imprint left by two large toes.'

Saudan and his companions measured the tracks, which were bigger than a ski boot, and snapped off about 80 photographs. Seven skiers, the helicopter pilot and co-pilot all saw the tracks. The creature had walked up within easy range of the summit, then veered across the face of it before disappearing down the same sheer cliff of rock and ice. 'A man never would have done that - a man would have climbed to the top and had a look around, after all that effort,' Saudan says.

The party radioed back to the helicopter. Gilles, the pilot, zoomed down the back of the mountain and picked up the mysterious tracks as they crossed a wide snowfield. 'I lost the trail in the rocks, and from there on down the valley it was all wooded.' After 30 minutes, they called off the helicopter hunt. 'I had the impression that he knew we were there and organised himself to get lost very quickly,' Gilles says.

SAUDAN warned me that I would require the strongest possible luck to see this creature - or even its footprints - during two days' flying. We met at Himalaya Heli-ski's base at the Hotel Centaur, set in the fruit orchards on the far side of Dal lake from Srinagar. Apart from Saudan's skiing clients, the hotel's other guests were all military officers. Indian security forces are fighting against Muslim separatists in Kashmir, and at night, the sound of gunfire drifted across the lake from the old city. Few tourists dare venture into Kashmir these days.

The helicopter ripped across the lake, and we looped upwards, leaving behind the Moghul gardens and mustard fields and headed towards Tibet, entering into the vast, towering whiteness of the mountains. Gazing at the Himalayas, which cover thousands of square miles from Bhutan up to Afghanistan, Saudan and I talked of why, if a yeti does exist, it is not seen more often. 'Most of the mountain people have no reason to go up into the peaks. They don't really know what's up there.' The only humans who do venture deep into the Himalayas are mountaineers, says Saudan, but they are only interested in peaks above 18,000 feet, where there is little oxygen and no small animals or plants to sustain a 100lb creature. The yeti, or whatever it is, evidently does not share man's desire to conquer mountains.

Gilles is an experienced mountain pilot who knows how to ride the icy updrafts rolling off the peaks, the way eagles do. As the Lama helicopter skims over blurred forests of white birch and pine, Verdan and his co-pilot scan the frozen landscape for signs of life. Rarely do they see anything. 'I've been flying here for three years, and you know what I've seen? Two bears, a fox and a troupe of white, long- haired monkeys. That's all. There are so many places for an animal to hide,' Verdan told me as the helicopter roared up through an icy ravine. In Europe, the treeline usually ends at about 9,000 feet. Here, temperatures are milder, and the forests often stretch up to 12,000 feet, giving cover and food to wildlife.

I cannot look at a mountain covered with snow, anywhere, without imagining how I would ski down it. After flying for half an hour, the temptation to give up the yeti hunt and put on skis grew unbearable. Finally, Saudan directed the pilot to a south-facing peak, and the helicopter deposited us at 13,000 feet and zoomed away. The silence was magnificent. Light-headed from the lack of oxygen and exhilaration, I felt weightless, as though I'd soon drift off the edge of the mountain and float. It was an agreeable sensation until I realised I was standing next to a 1,500ft precipice. I backed away, anxious to join the other skiers' huddle. Saudan checked that our avalanche bleepers were on, and then he poled off, cutting turns like rhythmic explosions in the deep, sparkling powder. I followed, with more exuberance than grace. After a mile or so of steep, but not perilous, open bowls, we descended into a forest of pines and white birches that looked as though they were wrapped in parchment.

There were no yeti tracks, but I was past caring. The skiing was easier than I had imagined; a French couple in their mid-sixties, after initial jitters, were first into the helicopter, clamouring for a second run. We made nine runs down four mountains that day, about 20 miles of uninterrupted skiing. I had the wild impulse to withdraw all my life savings, pawn my furniture and have my children go without supper and shoes, just so that I could go again and again. Heli-skiing in the Himalayas is exquisitely addictive.

That evening, Saudan showed me photographs of the tracks, but he refuses to let them be published until the National Geographic Society has analysed them. 'If National Geographic say they know what kind of creature made the tracks - a bear or something - then I'll drop the matter,' Saudan claims. And if it is a yeti?

'I don't want to capture it. I've always thought this vast world of mountains is not like a dead, icy planet, and that it contains animals unknown to us. Maybe big ones. It would be enough to have proof that this creature does exist. But I'm not going to go charging off looking for it,' Saudan says, laughing. 'The Himalayas are a big place. It's enough to see its footprints.'

Himalaya Heli-Ski: 010 33 50534450.

(Photographs omitted)